Shoppers walk through the mall shortly after opening for the day, Jan. 7, 2020.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Like so many remaining shopping malls across the country, Town Center at Aurora tends to make headlines these days only if there’s a sensational crime or if it’s closing.

Town Center grabbed headlines at Christmas after a fatal shooting. It’s not closing, however, officials say.

In fact, while the days of many, if not most, American shopping malls are numbered, Town Center is planning to change with the times and hoping to ride on to a new future.

If it works, it would certainly be an outlier in the metro area as well as across the nation.

For generations, teenagers have caroused the mall’s esplanades. When the mall opened in 1975, shoppers  snapped up leisure suits and shopped at one of the few upscale Denver department stores. Now, years after a major remodeling, shoppers leave with hip skinny jeans. For years, moms have moved a million stroller miles through the monolith and the food court has served a mountain of pizza, sandwiches and Orange Julius.

The story of what was once known as The Aurora Mall is a long one.

No longer sporting four major retail anchors, the once giant Sears and its vast parking lot is now conspicuously empty. The iconic department store went bankrupt in 2018, putting stress on the Aurora mall and hundreds of other Sears across the country. JCPenney, another anchor, is also struggling as shoppers increasingly buy their clothes online. Dillards and Macy’s still call the mall home.

It’s rare that this or any mall is associated with remarkable good news these days. Last month was no exception.

Just after Christmas, 17-year-old Nathan Poindexter was shot to death in that same JCPenney. In March, a teenage boy was found wandering around the parking lot bleeding from a gunshot wound. He later died.

Brutal TV news coverage of the crimes and relentless stories about struggling retailers has some market analysts seeing the writing on the wall — not Aurora Town Center and city officials, however. They say there’s an opportunity to diversify business at the mall.

The outlook hasn’t all been gloomy. Sales taxes businesses paid to the city of Aurora in 2018 passed a $5.8 million benchmark for the first time in 15 years, making the mall eligible for a significant tax rebate.

Current mall owner Washington Prime Group is adding new features and events to the mall in an effort thwart discouraging trends. The Ohio-based real estate trust declined to speak with Sentinel
about the problems and future of the Aurora mall.

First on their list of reforms: The old Sears will be converted into an indoor sports arena mall officials hope will be bustling with basketball, volleyball and soccer players young and old. The array of courts could be a reason for Aurorans to walk through the mall doors more often than a trip to Sears or Claire’s.

“The Town Center will be changing, like all of our brick and mortars,” said Kevin Hougen, president of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce. “I think we’re going to see this mall expand more, with more shopping and more experiences.”

A lone shopper with her child entertains the idea of going into Dilards department store, Jan, 7, 2020, at the Town Center at Aurora.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Mall Era: “A bit of a dinosaur”

Malik Cordova agrees that the Town Center of Aurora mall isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Cordova, 23, manages the Zumiez shop on the mall’s lower level. The skateboarding and clothing shop has long sold alternative-branded products. It’s a mainstay in malls across the U.S.

A few people picked through clothing racks the afternoon of Jan. 2 while Cordova folded pairs of black jeans.

“It’s been good — busy.” He added that Vans shoes and Champion-brand attire are still selling well at his Aurora location.

The Zumiez is one of about 130 stores, kiosks and restaurants housed in the more than one million square-foot mall. It’s a classic shopping mall design: Two levels are lined with storefronts, with the top floor looking over the bottom.

On a recent afternoon, teens bounced in a small bungie-jumping apparatus that afternoon, near squealing kids climbing over a small play structure under parental supervision. The food court had more than a few patrons gorging on Chic-fil-A.

During the tail-end of the holiday season, a smattering of shoppers ducked into mall staples: Bath and Body Works, Claire’s, Victoria’s Secret and Vans, just across the hall from Zumiez.

Although his store is busy, Cordova said Zumiez is buttressing its brick-and-mortar locations with online sales and free shipping.

Town Center of Aurora Mall

Built: 1975 as Aurora Mall

Size: 1 million sq ft

Redeveloped: For $100 million in 2005 and renamed Town Center of Aurora Mall

Anchors: JCPenney, Dillards and Macy’s

Outlets: About 130 stores, food shops, kiosks and other tenants

Annual sales tax receipts: $5.8 million in 2018

That’s a nod to the specter of e-commerce, which is capturing more and more retail business as consumers order everything from their next pair of shoes to a couch, rather than drive to the mall and squint at a mall map for the store. Last year, online retail sales surpassed department store buys for the first time, according to U.S. Department of Commerce reports, reaching almost 12 percent of all retail sales in the first quarter of 2019. That’s up from just 4 percent at the beginning of 2010.

Online sales growth is expected to eclipse even more of the retail sector in the coming years, and analysts say indoor shopping malls are on the front lines of the carnage.

“The general sense in the industry is that the mall is a bit of a dinosaur,” Michael Leccese, executive director of Urban Land Institute Colorado, said about malls generally.

Analysts say the outlook isn’t peachy. Investment bank Credit Suisse forecasted in 2017 that one in four U.S. malls will close by 2022.

“American consumers are increasingly moving away from department store chains and are instead turning more and more to e-commerce,” the report said. “Malls are suffering the most.”

Already, chains usually housed in malls shuttered thousands of stores this year alone.

Payless Shoes went bankrupt in June, closing about 2,100 U.S. stores. Gymboree, a clothing chain for kids, shuttered 800 stores, according to media reports. The closures followed hundreds of Sears and Kmart locations in 2018 and last year.

At the once Southglenn Mall, one of the last Sears shut the doors in December after weeks of going-out-of-business sales sold everything down to the shelves.

JCPenney and Macy’s — both “anchor” stores important to the Aurora mall — are reporting big losses.

The total retail closures announced this year broke 10,000 stores, dwarfing previous records, and store vacancies in malls are at an eight-year high.

“Department stores are doomed,” the Credit Suisse analysts concluded.

Stock in Washington Prime, the Aurora mall owner, has declined consistently for five years, dropping from about $17 per share in January 2015 to more than $3.5 per share this year. The group either owns or has a stake in more than 100 properties in the U.S., mainly malls and shopping centers.

Washington Prime would not disclose the Aurora mall’s profit margins, nor comment on business or safety questions for this report.

“Washington Prime Group continues to be transparent about the future of Town Center at Aurora,”  Vice President of Corporate Communications Kim Green said.

Bucking national trends the Aurora mall retail sales tax revenues, an important part of city government coffers, have risen in recent years.

Total mall taxes largely rose steadily from about $4.8 million in 2011 to more than $5.8 million in 2018, the most recent data available from the City of Aurora Tax and Licensing division.

Per its agreement with the city, the mall is eligible for an 80 percent tax rebate based on its 2018 sales tax numbers. And aside from an under-construction Champs store and the Sears, the mall appears to be full of vendors.

Town Center of Aurora.

The state of the Denver metro mall

Paul stood at a mall map on the lower level of the Aurora mall January 2, searching for a GameStop.

A government employee who declined to give his last name for privacy reasons, Paul said he had long hung out at the Aurora mall and the old Buckingham Square Mall as a teenager, playing pinball and drinking Orange Julius in the era of Pong.

But he was now in the store to buy a new Star Wars video game for a family member.

The convenience of the mall hooks him every once in a while to pick up something specific, he said. It’s near his work.

After finding his game, he’d be off to the Orange Julius in the mall’s upper-level food court.

Not long ago, Denver metro suburbia was dotted with malls filled with friends and families hanging out. The 1960s and 70s saw a boom in the mega-shopping centers from Englewood and Westminster to Southglenn and Aurora.

The long-defunct Cinderella City in Englewood once reigned as the world’s largest shopping mall under one roof.

Developers built the Buckingham Mall in 1965 near the intersection of South Havana Street and East Mississippi Avenue.  That mall stood for more than four decades before folding in 2007. It has since been redeveloped as the Gardens on Havana, an outdoor shopping center of separate buildings.

Familiar names to suburban shoppers also went by the wayside in the 1990s and early 2000s, including Lakewood’s Villa Italia, North Valley and the Southglenn and Westminster Malls.

Today, that leaves only a few indoor shopping centers in the region: the Park Meadows mall in Lone Tree, the luxury Cherry Creek Shopping Center, the Mill’s Outlet Mall in Golden and the Town Center in Aurora mall.

This collage of screen shots taken from a witness video depicts the chaos outside the mall after police closed and evacuated it Dec. 26. Police said they closed the mall after fights broke out in the food court at the end of a busy day.

Teen violence in the crosshairs

Malls are undoubtedly under threat from market forces. But worry about crime or violence has long shadowed the Town Center.

The 1980s saw racial tensions at the mall after an effort to stymie what was perceived to be an influx of gang members inside. Rules limiting teen attire and behavior were deemed anti-black, drawing in the city and community to mediate problems.

Problems made headlines again in 2005 when the mall was owned by then-retail-giant Simon. A leasing agent was secretly recorded telling a food-court vendor that the mall would be working to weed out black and minority patrons, and instead the redeveloped mall would cater to white shoppers.

The story caused a public outrage, in part because of the recording and also because mall officials never apologized for the incident.

Violence inside the mall and in the parking lot has been sporadic over the years. The same year the mall was redeveloped a 19-year-old girl was shot dead trying to break up a fight on a mall staircase.

Aurora Police have cordoned off the entrance to JC Penney at the Town Center of Aurora Mall Dec. 27, 2019 after reports of a shooting in the mall. PHOTO BY QUINCY SNOWDON/Sentinel Colorado

Michelle Lopez, 19, experienced the latest violence at the mall firsthand. She was working the small jewelry kiosk on the mall’s main floor the afternoon of December 27, when 17-year-old Poindexter was shot and killed in the nearby JCPenney.

A voice over an intercom instructed her to find a safe place to hide, she said.

Since the violence, she said foot traffic has markedly declined — and business is slow. She’ll keep offering faux diamonds and gold chains in the meantime, and expects that people will keep trickling back into the mall.

The alleged shooter involved in the Dec. 27 incident, Kamyl Xavier Garrette, 18, made his first court appearance Dec. 30.

Although the former crime scene at the JCPenney was open for business January 2, few shoppers combed the aisles of the vast department store.

It’s unclear whether the shooting affected business in JCPenney or the mall at-large.

An unidentified mall vendor reportedly told TV station Fox31 that fights are rampant inside the mall, and vowed to never do business in the mall again.

Annual police calls:

About 8,000, since 2015, mostly 911 hangups and shoplifting reports
Sex related: about 20 since 2015
Assault, about 100 since 2015

2019 Police calls:

Lethal shootings: 2
Felony assault: 2
Misdemeanor assault: 17

Data obtained from the Aurora Police Department indicate 100 reports of simple assault at the mall address during the last decade, along with a single report of a stabbing and a pair of homicides. However, a report does not mean a crime actually took place; in November, APD officers responded to reports of a shooting outside of the mall but did not find any evidence of a shooting taking place. Aurorans made seven reports of a shooting over the last decade.

Overall, police have received more than 8,000 calls for service to the mall in the past five years, ranging from 911 hang ups to bomb threats, according to Aurora Police Department data.

Aurora police still have a substation in the mall, not far from the JCPenney, staffed with one officer. A spokesperson said there are no immediate plans to increase police presence at the mall.

But Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman attended a meeting with city staff, police leadership and mall management last week, in the wake of the fatal shooting.

He said shoppers may soon see more of a police and  private security presence, and he added that the meeting also included a discussion about streamlining administrative processes when shoplifting occurs. That way, police and security can focus their priorities elsewhere. He also said the mall is considering deploying a code of conduct for teens inside the mall.

Violence at malls is not unique to Aurora, or this moment in the city’s history. After widespread riots in 1992 stemming from the Rodney King police brutality case, local high school students stormed the old Buckingham Square Mall, tipping over racks of clothing and damaging thousands of dollars worth of merchandise.

“This is safe mall,” Coffman said of the Town Center. “We’ve revisited that and have every confidence going forward we’re going to do everything we can and the mall management team will make sure this is a safe experience they can come to.”

Artist rendering of a planned indoor sports complex to open in 2020 at the defunct Sears at the Town Center of Aurora Mall. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Out with the old

When Sears went bankrupt in 2018, it began boarding up its department stores throughout the U.S. The Aurora mall location, making up the north end of the mall, was not spared and closed last year.

The colossal one-stop-shop for Kardashian clothing lines, cologne, jewelry and famous Kenmore appliances now stands dead, an emblem of an era before Amazon. On a recent day, one car was in its parking lot. From that vantage point, it is not clear whether the rest of the mall is still open.

Mall managers had to find a use for the old Sears. Instead of using the space for another retailer, the mall hedged its bets on fresh concept: An indoor sports emporium.

Washington Prime brought in Fieldhouse USA, a Texas-based redevelopment group that builds sport courts and holds tournaments for kids and adults battling in basketball, volleyball, pickleball and futsals.

It’s not clear when the Aurora location will open. But if all goes according to plan, Aurorans will be playing basketball against their neighbors where they once shopped the kitchen supplies section. Washington Prime is also bringing the indoor sports company to other malls around the country.

Lou Conforti, Washington Prime’s chief executive officer, is excited about the shake-up.

“Having three Washington Prime Group assets recently selected as FieldhouseUSA locations is akin to proudly standing upon the highest podium with my teammates … as an Olympic gold medal dangles tantalizingly around my muscular shoulders and chest while the national anthem majestically trumpets our victory,” he said in past a press release.

The mall is also offering more things to do at the mall — not just things to buy.

The Town Center also houses the local online charter school GOAL Academy.  Last year, high schoolers from Hinkley laid the smackdown in a bonafide wrestling ring placed on the mall floor. The “Takedown at Town Center” January 29, 2019 was the mall’s first prep wrestling bout. Organizers placed the mat in front of Dillard’s.

The second Takedown at Town Center will take over the mall again January 28.

But for Aurora City Councilperson Marsha Berzins, the promise of the mall also lays in more traditional retail. She said the future of the mall is bright.

“…there are some things you just can’t buy online,” she said. “For example, I would never order a pair of shoes online. I would have to go try those on. Not everybody likes to shop online.”